Scientists must sometimes choose between competing definitions of key terms. The degree to which different definitions facilitate important discoveries should ultimately guide decisions about which terms to accept. In the short run, rules of thumb can help. One such rule is to regard with suspicion any definition that turns a seemingly important empirical matter into an a priori exercise. Several prominent definitions of ecological “stability” are suspect, according to this rule. After evaluating alternatives, I suggest that the faulty definitions resulted from an overemphasis on population dynamics in community ecology. Machine metaphors of nature may have given rise to a related problem of experimental design.

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